Fairfax, Va., Oct. 17-(RNS) The scene at the Patriot Center could have been from a nondenominational service at an evangelical megachurch. Worship leaders held mikes and sang fervent choruses. The crowd of 5,200 people--ranging from Presbyterian to Baptist to Pentecostal--raised their hands heavenward as they joined the singing and followed the words on a video screen. And deafening shouts of joy and praise followed the melodies.

On a recent Saturday night (Oct. 13), this basketball arena-turned-church exemplified the interest in "praise and worship" music, a subgenre of contemporary Christian music that has topped the best-selling charts of both secular and Christian songs. "We were created to worship God," said Darlene Zschech, a worship leader from Sydney, Australia, known for the popular song "Shout To the Lord" and one of the artists traveling on "Songs 4 Worship--The Tour." "I feel like it's doing so well because there is a real hunger in people for the presence of God."

This third stop of an 11-day musical road trip was sponsored by Time-Life Music and a Christian music company who jointly produced recordings such as "Songs 4 Worship: Shout to the Lord," a two-CD pack that is the top-selling Christian album. Michael W. Smith, the most celebrated artist on the tour, just released a new CD, titled simply "Worship," which debuted on Billboard's chart of top 200 sellers at number 20. The market share of praise and worship songs in the Christian music industry has increased from 11 percent to 18 percent from 2000 to July of this year.

"People are just searching for something and they find something in this music that they can connect to on a personal level," said Gene Zacharewicz, vice president of new product development for Time-Life Music, which is spending tens of millions of dollars advertising this brand of Christian music. His company has just released a Christmas CD of the same kind of music and plans versions for kids and in Spanish next year.

Praise and worship music has existed for more than three decades but has grown in popularity in a wider circle of Christianity in recent years. Like some other Christian music, it has crossed over from its evangelical stronghold, reaching people with a variety of denominational and musical tastes.

Zschech (pronounced "Check"), one of a dozen artists traveling on the tour's six buses, said she receives letters from missionaries in Africa and attendees at youth rallies at the Vatican who have sung her music.

In the United States, it has entered such venerated venues as the Washington National Cathedral and the chapels of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. Smith mentioned at the concert that he chose the song "Above All" for a performance during President Bush's inaugural prayer service. The song speaks of Jesus being "above all powers, above all kings." "I obviously couldn't come and rock the house, especially if it was in the Washington Cathedral," he said. "I'll just never forget it 'cause I thought it was so the right song for the occasion."

While the song might have been unfamiliar to some at the January service, it and others, such as "Awesome God," were known by heart by many at the concerts that began in Worcester, Mass., on Oct. 11 and are scheduled to end in Chicago on Sunday (Oct. 21). They're a modern version of an old-fashioned hymn sing; but in this case, no hymnals were required. Instead of an organ, worshippers were accompanied by grand pianos, drums, guitars and a violin. It's part of a movement that has simultaneously divided congregations and brought together people of a range of denominations, ages, and racial and ethnic backgrounds for concerts of worship.

The Gospel Music Association's official definition of a praise and worship album states that most of it must include "participatory" music sung by artists known for leading worship in local or national settings. "The audience is not a spectator," said Frank Breeden, president of the Nashville, Tenn.-based organization. "They're a participant."

Songs can range from contemplative to hard rock, but they are "vertical in nature," says Breeden, or aimed at God. Don Moen, executive vice president of Integrity Music, the Mobile, Ala.-based co-sponsor of the tour, said the music is intended to be inspirationally intimate. "This music is a little bit more directed to encouraging people to have a personal relationship with God," said Moen, another worship leader on the tour. "Rather than `Let's sing about God,' these are directed towards him."

Nicole C. Mullen, whose worship song "Redeemer" garnered the Gospel Music Association's Dove Award for song of the year in April, said the music addresses God horizontally, too. "While I am singing of his mercies and I'm thanking him for being merciful to me, at the same time I'm having to tell everybody else about how good he's been," she said.

Although the faces of the audience attending the tour concert were often filled with joy, the performers couldn't ignore its sad timing, just a month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. That was especially true when Moen introduced "God Is Good All The Time." "We thought about not singing this song tonight because I didn't want it to be a trite thing in light of everything that's been happening here, in New York and in Pennsylvania," he said. "And I just thought is it appropriate?"

The audience roared with approval and Moen agreed. "There's a real power tonight in being able to declare, `God you are good in the midst of every situation that we're facing tonight,'" he said.

Though praise and worship music has its multitude of fans, it also has detractors, both musical and theological. While the "Songs 4 Worship--Shout to the Lord" CDs have an "all-star lineup," wrote Washington Post critic Mike Joyce, "it doesn't take long for these often bland performances to begin blurring into each other."

Carl P. Daw Jr., executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, does not completely reject the music, but advocates its inclusion along with more traditional music in what are now commonly known as services of "blended" worship. He worries that the value of historic hymns in exploring theological issues in depth can be lost if they are rejected for praise and worship styles.

Daw added that the modern choruses' focus on unison singing means the loss of harmony and, perhaps, voices of some congregational singers who cannot comfortably sing a melody line. "Singing in harmony is really a theological statement about unity and diversity," he said.

Breeden, of the Gospel Music Association, sometimes is wistful about notes on a page when many praise choruses are sung using lyrics printed on a sheet or flashed on a screen. But he thinks that is a necessary trade-off. "As a musician of over 30 years, I do miss some of the aesthetic qualities that occur with traditional hymnody," he said. "But I believe that the energy and the vitality of the worship experience that the modern music (forms) have brought more than make up for the loss of the aesthetics."

Concertgoers to the "Songs 4 Worship" tour said the music means more to them than just a time of celebration at church or in an arena. Katie Ziselberger, a vocational counselor from Gaithersburg, Md., said the music from Smith's latest CD proved a comfort to her when she listened to it at home as she awaited word on the welfare of a cousin who works on Wall Street on Sept. 11--the day the CD was released to stores. The cousin was fine. "I may not be blessed with the gift of song," said Ziselberger, who attends a Pentecostal church. "But I am totally blessed by God's music and I love to hear it all the time."

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